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Scholarship helps bring two PhD Candidates closer to their goals in mental health research

As the most recent recipients of The Jonathan & Joshua Memorial Graduate Scholarship, Nole Hiebert and Tamara Tavares are one step closer to achieving their goals in mental health research.

The scholarship — which is awarded at $15,000 for one year of funding — is given annually to a full-time PhD student specializing in the neuroscience of mental health. The scholarship was created by Robert McKinnon, who lost his sons Jonathan and Joshua to mental health disorders.

Each year, McKinnon hosts a golf tournament and the proceeds help fund the scholarships. This is the first year McKinnon has been able to fund two awards.

Hiebert, a PhD Candidate in Physiology and Pharmacology, explained that receiving this scholarship is a great honour, especially since it will help support his first research endeavor in mental health — a field he has wanted to contribute to for years.

“I am honoured to be the recipient of an award that is of such great personal significance to Mr. McKinnon and the other generous supporters,” he said. “While this may only be a one-year scholarship, for me it ignites what I hope will be a long career in mental health research.”

Tavares, a PhD Candidate in Neuroscience, agreed and added she is extremely grateful to have received this scholarship as it will give her the opportunity to dedicate more time toward her research on Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD), a neurodegenerative disorder characterized by drastic changes in personality, behaviour and emotional processing.

“My research is examining whether pre-symptomatic family members of patients with FTD have early deficits related to emotional processing by using an fMRI task,” Tavares said. “Ultimately, my research will help identify the deficits that are associated with the early stages of FTD, which would contribute valuable knowledge to develop more sensitive diagnostic tools.”

She added that early diagnosis is crucial in FTD, as potential treatments are predicted to slow down and prevent neuronal damage, but will not reverse existing impairments. Treatments need to be introduced early before the deficits become apparent and extensive.

On the other hand, Hiebert’s research involves understanding the cognitive deficits of the striatum in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) — a psychiatric illness characterized by repetitive, undesired thoughts, and compulsive behaviours.

“The proposed research will involve contrasting performance of OCD patients to age-matched healthy controls and other patient population (for example, Parkinson’s disease patients) on cognitive tests that have been shown to differentially engage dorsal and ventral striatum,” Hiebert said. “We will compare behavioural performance as well as neural activity in these brain regions using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).”

Hiebert aims to gain a greater understanding of the striatal circuitry in patients with OCD, which could have treatment implications in the future.

As the recipients of the scholarship, Hiebert and Tavares will meet with McKinnon to discuss their research projects. They have also been invited to attend the 2015 Golf Tournament, where they will have the opportunity to speak about the importance of their research.

“I look forward to meeting with the donors and sharing our common interest in mental health research,” Hiebert said.

Both the recipients hope to show their appreciation for the award at the next golf tournament and through continued hard work in the field of mental health.

For more information on The Jonathan & Joshua Memorial Graduate Scholarship and the annual Golf Tournament, visit www.jonandjoshgolf.ca.